Recently it was reported that the Maple Leafs are among many teams taking interest in KHL defenceman Nikita Zaitsev. The fan in me is slightly excited about the possibility of getting a high profile free agent, but at the same time, as a precaution, I think that we shouldn’t get too excited yet.
A similar situation happened a few years ago. Some fans may remember a player by the name of Justin Schultz. In 2012, Schultz was a prospect from the University of Wisconsin who could have a pick of teams interested in him, which included Canadian teams Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. He chose the Oilers. Since then, I believe we can say Schultz has been a bust.
Cast as an offensive option for the Oilers, over the past three seasons Schultz has averaged eight goals per year. This year, through nine games he only has one assist. His defensive stats aren’t much better, with his best plus/minus stat for a full season being minus 17, and the worst being a minus 22.
Now I know that this is only his fourth NHL season, and that the Oilers have been a laughably bad team in the past few years, but this situation proves two things. One is that not all hyped players turn out to be successful in the big league. The other is that putting a supposedly great player on a bad team doesn’t always improve that team. It really is a similar situation to Zaitsev. The Leafs are a team that has not had a great last few seasons and are chasing a potential star d-man.
There is also a situation currently going on this season similar to Schultz, with high profile defenceman Mike Reilly signing in Minnesota before the start of this season. In a few years, we will know if that situation works or if he too is a young free agent bust like Schultz.
This is not to say that the Leafs shouldn’t be chasing a potential star, but that fans and management need to temper their expectations.
The Leafs don’t have a great track record with free agents. Being a Toronto sports fan, I have seen the team sign so many free agents that end up turning into busts. This list seems to be endless, from Tim Connolly, David Clarkson, and Jeff Finger to Colby Armstrong and Mike Komisarek.
Now, Zaitsev’s record looks good, with 13 points in his first 22 games, but given the above facts, a caution flag needs to come up. The Leafs need to know what they are getting into before they jump into another potentially dangerous contract situation. Fans need to be open minded to the fact that a potential first line defenceman in the KHL may not be a top tier defenceman in the NHL.
Leaf fans let’s hope, regardless of what happens, that Shanahan and company know what they are doing
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Is a reporter for The Standard Newspaper, so if you see him, feel free to say hello. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @dancearnsy